A Judicial Profile: Judge Ethan Pham

On August 14, 2018, Judge Ethan Pham became a Municipal Court Judge for the City of Morrow.  Morrow has the highest per capita population of people of Vietnamese-Americans in Georgia and Judge Pham is their first Vietnamese-American judge.  Additionally, he is the third Vietnamese-American judge in Georgia and the first judge to emigrate from Vietnam.

Judge Pham has also been appointed to the Municipal Court in Norcross and will be sworn in this February. When not on the bench, he is in private practices with his wife, Jenny Nguyen, at the firm Nguyen and Pham in Norcross.  Judge Pham practices local government and personal injury law while Jenny practices real estate, immigration and family law.

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born in Vietnam.  My dad and granddads fought for the South Vietnamese military during the Vietnam War and fought alongside the American military.  After the war, they were thrown in so-called “re-education camps” with no due process.  When my dad got out, he started doing paperwork to get us to America under a humanitarian program that was established under President Ronald Reagan.

We came to American in ’92-’93 with nothing but the clothes on our backs.  We landed in Minnesota first.  Minnesota was a shock; it was snowing.  It was the first time I had ever seen snow. We went from a tropical country to practically the North Pole. So it was a huge shock for me. But I actually liked it. As a kid I had only seen snow in the movies.  So the first time I saw it I was like “WOW, this is amazing!”

When we got to Minnesota, I was about 11, my brother was four and my sister was a new born baby.  We struggled.  My parents had two jobs each, washing dishes, to support the family. I had to step up to help raise my siblings.  We got through it.  We lived in Minnesota for a year then moved to Rome, Georgia.

My parents found jobs in a carpet mill in Calhoun, Ga. That’s why they decided to pack the family up and move down to Georgia.  My life was like any other kid’s life.  School during the day and I took care of my siblings in the evenings.

Your family went through tough times.  What life lessons did you learn from your parents?

My parents instilled in me at a young age the importance of hard work.  We came here with nothing, we struggled and worked hard.  My brother was four when we came and my sister was a baby; my brother is now a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and my sister is a registered nurse. This country has been amazing to me and my family. It gave us all the opportunities in the world to make a better life for ourselves.  We had to put in some hard work to get there.

Around 2008 when the economy started tanking, both my parents lost their jobs at the carpet mill.  To help them out, I borrowed money from family and took out a huge loan and bought a chicken farm.  I became a chicken farmer.  I was working as a software developer during the day in Rome then drive up to Calhoun to scoop chicken poop.  It’s still a family owned and operated egg farm which produces between 15,000 and 18,000 eggs a day which my parents collect.

Why did you decide to go to law school?

I originally did not go to school to be a lawyer.  Like most Asian parents, mine wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer.  I studied biology in college, actually a double major, biology and business.  After undergrad I became a tax software developer for a multinational corporation.  I did that for five years.  Then I decided, you know it’s a good paying job, it’s not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  I’m more of a gregarious person.  I like to go out there and meet people.  Sitting in front of a computer coding all day is not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That is when I decided to go to law school. 

My desire to go to law school actually started my third year in college.  That’s when 9/11 happened.  I became more aware of what was happening.  I started watching the news and started becoming more curious about the world.  I started asking questions.  I had more interest in international affairs and in the law. 

What did you do after law school?

I thought, because I had a background in science, I’d do something in patent law.  But when I graduated, had the opportunity to attend a Council meeting in the City of Morrow. Being the friendly person I am, I met the Mayor, the Council and the City Attorney. I told the City Attorney, Steve Fincher, I would like to sit down and have lunch with him.  He arranged a lunch meeting but I was unaware that lunch was actually a job interview.  He explained he wanted to see who I really was, not who I would be in an interview.  Steve Fincher gave me my start as an assistant city attorney with his firm on the south side of Atlanta and he remains my mentor.  When I was in law school I had no idea that area of law existed, local government law.  But as I got involved with it, I loved it. 

Why did you want to become a judge?

I love the practice of law. I love being a lawyer.    There is really no rule of law in Vietnam today.  The law is whatever the government says it is at any given point in time.  When I was a city attorney, I gained a deeper appreciation for the law.  Whatever decision the government wanted to make, they wanted to know if the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Georgia allowed us to do this so our actions would not infringe upon the right of our citizens.  When your government is looking over its shoulder to make sure they don’t infringe upon the rights of their citizens, it goes to show you there is such a thing as the rule of law.  The government isn’t running roughshod over its people. With my background, being able to play a small part in our democracy is an exhilarating experience.

Judges and lawyers play a crucial role in upholding and maintaining the rule of law.  It’s such a huge honor for me to be a lawyer and a member of the bench. 

I was the first person in my family to go to college and the first person to go to law school.  I’m the first judge in the entire history of my family.  It’s a huge honor.

How important is diversity?

The legal profession is set up to serve society.  If the members of the legal profession look like the members of society we serve, people are going to be more naturally inclined to trust or have more faith in the system that is set up to serve them.  So, when a diverse community sees people who look like them and speak in their native tongue, they will naturally have more of a comfort level in trusting what it is we are trying to accomplish.

About a third of the population of the City of Morrow’s population is of Vietnamese-American descent. It is a point of pride for the Vietnamese-American community to have a Vietnamese-American judge in their city. 

What is the best thing about being a municipal court judge?

You have the ability to make an impact directly on those who appear before you.  Sometimes you have people who are struggling who come in.  Yeah, they may have sped through the city.  You use your discretion.  You make sure they don’t it again.  Just give them a second chance.  You can do it in such a way they know they made a mistake but they will think about not engaging in the same behavior the next time.

Having a direct impact on those who appear in front of you, is perhaps the best thing about being a judge at the municipal court level.

What is the toughest thing about being a municipal court judge?

At this point in my career as a judge, it’s the ability to manage the case load.  Sometimes you’ve got 40-50 cases in the morning and the same number in the afternoon. How do you balance between the ideas you should give everyone their day in court with the need to get everybody out of there in a timely fashion?  That is challenging.  It’s probably going to take me some time to get all the kinks worked out.

Are you involved in the community?

I serve on the Gwinnett County Transit Advisory Board and the Gwinnett County Police Foundation.  I am also the General Counsel for Atlanta International Night Market. 

A few years ago, I helped create a task force to look at the unauthorized practice of law in the immigrant communities.  Immigrant communities get taken advantage of by scam artists and the legal profession needs to do something about it.

What do you do for fun?

Judge Pham and his wife JennyThis country has been so amazing to me and I just want to take advantage of all the opportunities that are out there. So that’s why we get involved in a lot of things.  When we are not doing community work, Jenny and I love to travel and love to go out to eat.  I used to love playing basketball but as of late I don’t have much time for that.

What are you reading?

I am a news junkie.  I read a lot of news.  That’s what I do in my spare time.

 

by Aimee Maxwell

 

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